REVIEW: Concentr8 by William Sutcliffe

This is the second of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.

Concentr8 is set in London of the near future. Riots have broken out, not dissimilar to the riots of 2011. They seem to be in response to the withdrawal of the eponymous drug, Concentr8: austerity cuts mean the government will no longer subsidise the widely prescribed Ritalin substitute. A group of five disaffected young people, led by Blaze, kidnap a civil servant and tie him to a radiator in an abandoned warehouse. A hostage situation results. Meanwhile, a plucky journalist is starting to ask questions about Concentr8 and just whose fault this all is. (The Prime Minister’s? Of course not!)

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Concentr8 deals with a tricky subject: the controversies around ADHD diagnoses for schoolchildren. Each chapter is headed by an extract from a real life source, about Big Pharma, ADHD, the riots, and other appropriate topics, which make it very clear that this reality is a mere step from our own. (Sutcliffe wrote an article for The Independent about his research for the novel, which you can read here.) This issue is relatively little discussed, and I think it’s important to encourage people, especially young people, to be sceptical about these kinds of “solutions” for inconvenient behaviour. For some people, prescription medication for mental illnesses literally saves lives and that absolutely cannot be dismissed, but it’s also true that people who are struggling are sometimes fobbed off with pills as an easy answer.

When state control is involved, as in Concentr8, we are getting beyond medical laziness and into something altogether more sinister. Politicians are sent up in the form of the Mayor, whose resemblance to Boris Johnson is obviously completely coincidental, but Whitehall gets an easy ride compared to Big Pharma, personified by the useless and corrupt Professor Pyle. Officer Densworth, representing the police force, is portrayed as a vain hypocrite. The only significant adult character who isn’t reprehensible is the journalist, who has the one-note role of “smart lady journalist.”

The teenage characters are portrayed much more sympathetically. Each narrator gets their own voice, like a South London version of Marlon James’ Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings with less virtuosity. It’s an effective technique, but we spend so little time with each character it’s hard to care about them. I felt sympathy for Karen, Troy, Femi, Lee, and to a lesser extent Blaze, but their narration never evoked much empathy.

Probably my favourite character moment is when Karen is about to perform a very important haircut, and exclaims “This ain’t scissors!” about the paper scissors she is given. There is so much humour and pathos in this moment, in Karen’s pride in her trade, in this one potential building block for the future she has already lost (if she ever really had one). This is a novel about and told by lost youth, who have never had any chances in life. Troy saying he’s never seen the sea made me acutely, uncomfortably aware of my own privilege. I don’t consider my background especially privileged, but these kids are from a whole different world. The sheer wasted potential on show is devastating: as the journalist notes of Blaze, “Born somewhere else, he could have become anything.” (Blaze’s power is built up and up throughout the book, making his inevitable defeat an unexpected gut-punch.)

Concentr8 is a satire, and it works well as a polemic. It sheds light on stories which other people would rather silence. It gives voice to the voiceless, and punches firmly up in its ridiculing of state institutions. However, it falls flat for me as a story. Character is essential for me in fiction, and I never engaged with any of the narrators, or if I did they had changed over by the time I turned the page. Like the characters themselves, I grew bored of the hostage situation almost as soon as it began. For a short book, it feels slow, perhaps because it also feels serious and clever. I’m not sure I’d categorise Concentr8 as YA if it weren’t for the teenage protagonists. It’s an interesting comparison with Am I Normal Yet? which deals with mental health in an unpretentious and accessible way. Concentr8 is a knife of a novel: sharp, incisive, and ultimately cold.

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